Mystery tour for Britain's students

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The Independent Online

A hundred student players will find out which of the four home nations is currently the strongest in an unusual setting this September. The representatives of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are used to some long and awkward journeys to matches, but they will pale into insignificance alongside an Aeroflot flight to Moscow and a 12-hour overnight train ride to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan.

A hundred student players will find out which of the four home nations is currently the strongest in an unusual setting this September. The representatives of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are used to some long and awkward journeys to matches, but they will pale into insignificance alongside an Aeroflot flight to Moscow and a 12-hour overnight train ride to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan.

"It's going to be an experience in itself, even before we get on the rugby field," says Alan Robinson, the coach to the Ireland side.

The four countries are joining Russia, Tartarstan and – proving that the organisers do not have a degree in geography – New South Wales in a two-week Europa Cup competition. There is also a place for Yugoslavia, although nobody is quite sure whether they will make it.

The tournament will also act as a selection trial for the Great Britain team to play their counterparts from Australia later this year and for the Student World Cup in France next year. But it should also be an unforgettable fortnight in its own right. "The itinerary is fantastic," says the director of the Student Rugby League, Niel Wood. "One day reads: 'Boat on the Volga – beer, vodka, balalaika'."

If that sounds convivial enough, there will be a cloud over one of the participating nations, with the England coach, Simon Tuffs, still in hospital after breaking his neck in a swimming pool accident in Spain.

England will now be coached by the Widnes stand-off, Richard Agar, and the former Featherstone winger, Ikram Butt, but their thoughts will inevitably be with Tuffs, who will not know for some time whether he will be able to walk again.

"It's awful news," says Matt Jeffery, of John Moores University in Liverpool, and a prospective England captain for the trip. "As well as being a horrible blow for him and his family, we've lost our coach and it's bound to affect our preparation. We just have to hope that our doing well in the tournament would be a boost for him."

At a time when rugby league feels itself under attack from the greater resources and deeper pockets of union, the extent of British involvement in the Europa Cup is further evidence of one thriving growth area for the code.

The Celtic nations' squads will have a far more authentically local accent than their teams in the professional World Cup last autumn. The Irish, for instance, have six home-based players who study in Dublin and Cork, as well as Irish-born and Irish-descended players from mainland institutions. The Welsh, coached by the former Gateshead forward, Stuart Singleton, are drawn from the universities of South Wales, where league has a genuine presence.

Quite what they can expect in Kazan, a city where the Kazan Arrows have not only kept the rugby league flame burning, but also attract crowds of several thousand, remains uncertain, but anyone on that night train from Moscow in a few weeks' time will be aware that something out of the ordinary is going on.

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